Twenty Years Later: B. R. Myers, A Reader’s Manifesto

See the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” home page for more information on this series.


Twenty years ago this month, The Atlantic published a critical essay on the then-current state of American prose. As dry and dusty a topic that sounds—doubly so when published by an august New England monthly—it improbably became a cultural sensation, leading to op-eds in international newspapers, vitriolic letters-to-the-editor, screechy denunciations from professional reviewers across the media spectrum, and readers everywhere debating—of all things—the modern novel.

Writer B. R. Myers unexpectedly touched a raw nerve in an America that was better-read than the literati believed possible. “A Reader’s Manifesto” dissected without mercy the work of such literary lights as Don DeLillo, Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, Paul Auster, and David Guterson. Myers didn’t merely criticize their prose on terms of its grammar and diction, he attacked these writers on grounds of pretentiousness, and accused the literary establishment of abetting their ascendancy.

Charged stuff, but still very inside baseball. To rouse an impassioned response from readers over books like White Noise and Snow Falling Like Cedars was a remarkable moment in American culture. It’s more remarkable considering some of the above authors’ books satirize the inanity of American culture.

Looking back, it seems dream-like for a critical examination of literary novels to ignite such a furor. I can’t imagine such a thing happening today. Then again, it seemed equally unimaginable twenty years ago.

History of Manifesto

Fed-up with fawning reviews of works like Timbuktu and All the Pretty Horses, Myers first wrote his manifesto in 1999. Using careful, reasoned prose punctuated with wit and scathing humor, he analyzed passages from prize-winning books—passages which had been the subject of so much praise by literary reviewers as examples of masterful writing. In his hands, and using tried-and-true close-reading techniques, he punctured these writers’ obtuse and repetitive language to reveal prose he found to be turgid, meaningless, and pretentious.

Myers was convinced no magazine or newspaper would publish his critique. He was an unknown in the literary world; a monograph on the quality of modern literary prose hardly promises to fly off bookstore shelves.

So Myers did what many writers would do in later years: He self-published his manifesto on Amazon. He titled it Gorgons in the Pool: The Trouble with Contemporary “Literary” Prose after a particularly choice passage in a Cormac McCarthy novel. “Nothing happened,” he later wrote. “I went online and ordered three copies for myself; they were the only ones ever sold.”

One of the copies he mailed out for review wound up in the hands of an Atlantic editor, who offered to publish rather than review it. The Atlantic demanded severe cuts and revisions, and the version published in the magazine comes off nastier than he’d intended. He also had the gut-wrenching task of waving off the Times Literary Supplement from publishing a review of Gorgons, as he’d already signed a contract with The Atlantic. (“As someone said to me the other day, ‘How do you know [Times Literary Supplement] wasn’t going to tear you apart?'” he later remarked. “I suppose everything worked out for the best.”) Bad timing would develop into a cadence for Manifesto.

Gorgons in the Pool by B. R. Myers

The Atlantic article, tucked away deep inside the July/August double-issue, improbably made Myers a name-brand overnight. His outsider status only buffed his credentials as a hard-nosed reviewer. Even his use of first initials added a mysterious air to his origins. Although he received praise from many quarters, it mostly came from readers and (interestingly) journalists, a profession notorious for attracting writers shut-out of the book publishing world.

Although the literati initially ignored the essay, drumbeats of support from readers for Myers basic thesis—modern lit is pretentious—caught their attention. Much of the criticism directed back at Myers originated from book reviewers, book supplement editors, and literary novelists. Some of it was quite vitriolic, outraged anyone could even suggest the writers he selected weren’t unassailable geniuses. A few of these refutations had a smug air about them, as though they were slamming the door on Myers and putting an and to the dreary affair once and for all.

It didn’t work. The rebuttals only stoked increased support for Myers from readers around the world. The back-and-forth debate raged online and, as a mark of the times, across letters-to-the-editor pages, which printed point and counterpoint letters for weeks. This simply did not happen often, even in a time when a lot of people still had their news delivered to them via bicycle.

Frustrated. the literary professional class took up what is today recognized as a surefire stratagem for shutting down an Internet debate: They doxxed him.

Not exactly—while The New York Times Book Review didn’t print Myers’ phone number and street address, they did see fit to delve into his past for anything incriminating (much like the Twitterati today will dumpster-dive people’s feeds to dig up embarrassing tweets from eight years ago). With the ethics of a tabloid reporter, Judith Shulevitz dished to her readers that Myers was a foreigner (he’s not) who lived in New Mexico (i.e., not New York City) and was at that moment preparing to spend a year in Seoul “teaching North Korean literature to the South Koreans.” (Myers’ response: “I would probably have described my job in a way less calculated to evoke the phrase ‘selling ice to the eskimoes.'”)

Myers, Shulevitz wrote, “is not just a man without a stake in the literary establishment. He is foreign to it in every way.” His manifesto could have

proved that a critic needs nothing more than taste to make a case. Does Myers’s essay do all this? It does not, because Myers doesn’t have a sure grasp of the world he’s attacking.

Most of the denunciations of Manifesto are steeped in this kind of a haughty condescension, and it served Myers well.

(I should add that I’m uncomfortable throwing around the phrase “literary establishment” as a catch-all for a wide and disjointed segment. Yet, Shulevitz seemed comfortable acknowledging its existence in 2001, so I’ll assume it existed then and exists today.)

Manifesto continued to be a lodestone of bad timing. The Times‘ nativist pillorying of Myers was published on September 9, 2001. Two days later, the Times—and the rest of the world—was focused on a very different subject. The literary debate Myers had sparked that summer ground to a halt.

The history of Manifesto could easily have ended with the attacks on the World Trade Center, if not for events which nudged a little harder on the snowball Myers had started rolling in 1999.

First was Oprah selecting Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections for her book club. To get an idea of how close this shaved against Myer’s Manifesto—and his continued game of footsie with bad timing—the same edition of the New York Times Book Review that exposed Myers as a Korean-teaching foreigner also included a glowing review of The Corrections with an ironic premonition of Oedipus Rex proportions: A winking approval that the book contains “just enough novel-of-paranoia touches so Oprah won’t assign it and ruin Franzen’s street cred.” Actually, Oprah was set to announce The Corrections as her next book club pick four days later (only to postpone it due to 9/11). When Franzen bristled that Oprah was attempting to smarten-up her book club by associating it with the “high-art literary tradition,” a new literary controversy erupted to displace Manifesto.

Although the imbroglio between Oprah and Franzen is better framed as tabloid-level tit-for-tat, Manifesto played a minor role. Online commenters made the point that Myers’ gripes about the literary establishment sneering down on the reading public were playing out before the nation’s eyes. Gone was his critics’ suggestion that, on this point, Myers was jousting with windmills.

The second event was Melville House publishing A Reader’s Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose in 2002 (one of the two first books produced by the then-fledgling publisher). This full-length treatment gave Myers the opportunity to restore much of what was lost from Gorgons in the Pool when it was adapted for The Atlantic. It’s this edition I’ve based this review on.

The backward glance

The Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2001
The Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2001.

I vividly recall reading “Manifesto” in the summer of 2001. I’d written my first novel and was discovering the ego-melting process called “finding a literary agent.” Over the prior years I had enrolled in evening and weekend creative writing courses around the Bay Area, where many of the books Myers lay judgment upon were held up as models exemplar. Also at the time I was a member of a weekly “writer’s reading group.” A member of the group handed me a Xerox of The Atlantic essay along with a half-joking warning not to take anything this Myers guy has to say too seriously.

I wound up taking B. R. Myers quite seriously. I had never read anything like “A Reader’s Manifesto.” Rereading Myer’s book for this post, I still marvel over his concision and convictions. It can be read in a single sitting, and unless you’re a grump, it will keep you engaged from chapter to chapter. Myers understands the game he’s taken up: He can’t poke a stick at others’ bad prose if his own prose is lacking. His manifesto is meticulous, refreshing, lively, and enlightening, as seen here when he trains his gimlet eye on McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses:

As a fan of movie westerns I refuse to quibble with the myth that a rugged landscape can bestow an epic significance on the lives of its inhabitants. But as Conrad understood better than Melville, the novel is a fundamentally irreverent form; it tolerates epic language only when used with a selective touch. To record with the same majesty every aspect of a cowboy’s life, from a knife-fight to his lunchtime burrito, is to create what can only be described as kitsch.

Not only is this arguable, there’s a lot packed in there to argue with: I find this to be a positive.

Or here, where he’s analyzing David Guterson’s output:

…a slow tempo is as vital to his pseudo-lyrical effects as a fast one is to Proulx’s. What would otherwise be sprightly sentences are turned into mournful shuffles through the use of tautology. “Anything I said was a blunder, a faux pas,” “a clash of sound, discordant,” “She could see that he was angry, that he was holding it in, not exposing his rage,” “Wyman was gay, a homosexual,” and so on.

This level of tight engagement with the work at hand shows this is well above the usual culture-war crap that’s saturated our nation’s dialogue for decades now.

Some of his lines of attack are novel. Performing a close and scathing read of Annie Proulx’s self-approving dedication in Close Range (“my strangled, work-driven ways”) is the kind of antic you’d expect of the University Wits or Alexander Pope. His oft-quoted rejoinder to an exchange between Oprah and Toni Morrison is his most acidic and least endearing: “Sorry, my dear Toni, but it’s actually called bad writing.” (Less oft-quoted is his explanation: “Great prose isn’t always easy but it’s always lucid; no one of Oprah’s intelligence ever had to puzzle over what Joseph Conrad was trying to say in a particular sentence.”)

Regardless of what you might have read elsewhere, the boilerplate attacks on Myers don’t stand up to scrutiny. Supposedly he values plot over form; he disdains “difficult” books; he cherry-picked bad passages from the books he attacks; he selected writers who’d gone out of fashion; or the confounding claim that he’s a humorless cur prone to sarcasm and snide shots. Having read his book at least four times now, I say none of these complaints hold water. (Sarcasm may be the lowest form of humor, but it’s not humorless.) I’m not saying there’s no room for criticizing Manifesto, only that dismissing Myers without engaging his points is not fruitful.

And there’s plenty in Manifesto for writers to take away. Rather than being satisfied with throwing spitballs at modern lit, he contrasts prose he finds vapid with prose that stands up. Myers will forever get grief for quoting Louis L’Amour’s Hondo with approval, but the passage he includes is a model of clean, effective writing. Myers makes the point several times that the prose he’s complaining about could have been written with less-pompous English, and takes a few stabs at editing it as proof. He’s engaged with the texts under the gun, a marked difference from his critics who sniff down on him (and, it seems, cannot be bothered to quote and refute his specific claims).

My take-away from Manifesto for writers is, don’t produce affected writing, produce affecting writing: Language that stirs the reader and shines a light rather than obscures. Good editing requires close reads of your prose, and questioning what every word is doing in a sentence. Ditch the idea that affecting prose is “easy” and affected prose is “difficult,” an avant-garde pose. “‘Prose,’ for [Myers], equals syntax plus diction, and is expected to denote, rather than to evoke.” I think he expects it to do both.

Revolt of the reading public

The significance of Myer’s Manifesto is not a perverse thrill of taking down holy cows like McCarthy and DeLillo, but how eerily it presaged the next twenty years in American publishing. The circuitous route Myers followed from Gorgons in the Pool to The Atlantic Monthly to Melville House is a once-in-a-generation aberration, but the elements of getting said critique out of the word processor and into the hands of readers rings awfully familiar today.

When I read in 2002 of Myers self-publishing Gorgons on Amazon, I was floored: I had no idea such an opportunity was available to mere mortals. It was a bona fide light-bulb moment, the first time I pondered the possibility of making an end-run around the New York City publishers and selling my work directly to readers. Ten years later, not only was Amazon still open to self-publishing, the company was rapidly tooling up to make publishing your own e-book as easy as clicking a mouse button. The Guardian has made much mirth over the quality of self-published novels and much hay over the coming death of e-books. After the pandemic shuttered libraries, bookstores, and schools throughout 2020 and 2021, I now see little resistance to the long-term viability of e-books.

Less obvious today, but notable in 2001, was a writer in a national magazine praising Amazon user reviews (of the books Myers was criticizing, not his own overlooked Gorgons). Before Manifesto, any reference in the popular media to Amazon’s user reviews was bound to be dismissive or sardonic. Cultural commentators back then saw putting opinion-making into the hands of readers as ludicrous as a truck driver penning a starred Michelin review. (Don’t forget, there were still people in 2001 arguing the Internet was a passing fad—that it was faster to drive to the bookstore and buy a book than for Amazon to deliver it, ergo Amazon’s days were numbered.) Myers didn’t merely approve of Amazon user reviews, he used them as evidence that readers can and do understand difficult literature. I believe this is the first time I saw anyone in the cultural sphere do this.

Self-publishing; “average people” versus the experts; the power of reader reviews; the pseudo-doxxing Myers was subjected to; online discussion boards keeping the debate alive; and vitriolic denunciations from on high. All that’s missing is a hash tag, some Bitcoin changing hands, and the dust-up around Manifesto would sound like any number of social media episodes we’ve seen in recent years.

Martin Gurri’s The Revolt of the Public deserves mention here. Although I’ve not read it, I have read plenty of reviews and analyses, simply because this 2014 book appears to have predicted the rise of Donald Trump, Brexit, cancel culture, the Capitol Hill attacks, QAnon, #MeToo, and more. (It too was self-published on Amazon.)

Gurri’s thesis is that the Internet is destabilizing public respect for institutional authority and, in due course, undermining the authorities’ control over social and political narratives. The expert class, once considered the final word, now must defend itself from an increasingly skeptical public.

It seems to me that the narratives being disrupted by digital communications may not merely be political narratives but also traditional ones—the narratives offered by the literary novel, and the narratives sold to the public by the literary expert class. Not only are big-name authors being treated with skepticism by the general public, but their fawning reviewers as well. (There is less distinction here than would first appear: Literary novels are often reviewed by other literary novelists. This incestuousness would be a scandal in other fields. “Imagine what would happen if the Big Three were allowed to review each other’s cars in Consumer Reports,” Myers noted in an interview. “They’d save the bad reviews for outsiders like the Japanese.”)

A before-and-after example of the Internet’s effect on the publishing world is Lorenzo Carcaterra’s Sleepers (1995) and James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces (2003). Both were mega-bestsellers whose publication dates bookend the Internet’s ascension in daily life. Both were published as memoirs, and both had their factual accuracy challenged. The controversy around Sleepers was reported by the mass media copy-and-pasting publisher press releases and quoting book agents. A Million Little Pieces was put under the Internet’s collective magnifying glass thanks to an investigation by the amateur web site The Smoking Gun.

This people-powered exposé became a nightmare for James Frey, and his reputation never recovered. Editions of A Million Little Pieces (another Oprah book club pick!) now include a publisher’s note warning of “certain embellishments” and “invented” details: “The reader should not consider this book anything other than a work of literature.”

Carcaterra largely escaped unscathed in 1995 thanks to the controversy being framed by the media as a publishing industry squabble. Sleepers remains sold today as memoir. (Funny enough, it’s also listed under Amazon’s “Hoaxes & Deceptions” category.) Carcaterra’s luck can be measured in years. If Sleepers had been a bestselling memoir in 2005, the Internet would have torn it to shreds.

“Leaders can’t stand at the top of pyramids anymore and talk down to people,” Martin Gurri writes. “The digital revolution flattened everything.” I say A Reader’s Manifesto was the initial deflating puncture of the literary world’s cozy status quo.

Engendered reputations

In the conclusion of Manifesto, Myers writes:

I don’t believe anything I write will have much effect on these writers’ careers. The public will give them no more thought in twenty years than it gives, say, Norman Rush today, but that will have nothing to do with me, and everything to do with what engendered their reputations in the first place.

(If you’re wondering who Norman Rush is, I confess I had to look him up myself.)

I was tempted to produce a list of the writers whose work Myers criticized to see where their reputations stand today. I won’t do that; any reader so inclined could make such a list on their own. Some of the rebuttals directed at Myers in 2001 claimed a few of these authors were already “on their way out,” although each critic seemed to formulate a different list of who remained relevant and who was exiting stage left.

I will point out that some of Myers’ subjects have sunk into a comfortable life of teaching, penning the occasional pop culture piece, and a general resting upon of laurels. Myers makes a couple of pointed barbs about Old Man and the Sea, but at least Hemingway was still throwing left-hooks at the end of his life.

(When Myers’ critics claim that literary book awards and glowing reviews in highbrow magazines are “meaningless,” or that Myers ignored genre fiction’s own system of awards and reviews, they’re overlooking the enduring social capital of “literary significance.” A science-fiction writer receiving big-time accolades in 2001 is not going to be, in 2021, a tenured professor, traveling the writer’s retreat circuit as a featured speaker, and penning think pieces for Harper’s. The self-propelling feedback loop that is the literary world should not be discounted.)

Note that Myers leaves unsaid what exactly engendered these authors’ reputations in the first place. The optimist in me thinks he’s referring to the quality of their writing—live by the sword, die by the sword.

The pessimist in me suspects what really engendered their reputations is an enabling literary establishment, which has proven resiliently fickle, lacking a healthy sense of introspection, and is eager to maintain a country-club exclusivity while claiming commitments to diversity. Even in the face of a massive shift in digital publishing, and the concomitant explosion of voices now available via e-books and print-on-demand, the literary establishment remains a closed shop. Its reviewers walk hand-in-hand with big publishers who regularly ink seven-figure publishing deals and expect a return on said investment. Positive reviews in well-placed periodicals are an important component of any publishing marketing plan. (The podcast “Personal Rejection Letter” explored this question in 2017, along with a retrospective of Myer’s Manifesto.)

In other words, the authors Myers put under the microscope may or may not be relevant twenty years later, but the system that held them aloft remains alive and strong. The Internet has kneecapped it some—the literary establishment is less commanding than it once was—but it’s still humming along.

Well, then, could Myers have at least shifted the conversation? I would say he did. While Jonathan Franzen’s 1996 “Perchance to Dream” (re-titled “Why Bother?”) and Tom Wolfe’s 1989 “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast” are both considered modern literary manifestos of great import, it’s plain to me that Myers’ Manifesto has shown far more staying power in the public’s and writers’ consciousness. Even in a 2010 critical response to B. R. Myers review of Franzen’s Freedom, the comments section swings back and forth on the significance of Myer’s Manifesto, with the most recent comment coming in 2016. There are YouTube videos produced as late as last year going over the debate Myers ignited twenty years ago.

Meanwhile, in creative writing courses across America, mentioning Myers’ name will still earn an eye-roll and a dramatic sigh from the instructor, wordlessly asking when this guy will just go away.

The Little Sister – The greatest Hollywood novel of all time?

Previously: The Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

With Raymond Chandler so intimately associated with mid-century Los Angeles, and Chandler so determined to record the city’s excesses through his gimlet eye, it’s surprising how little of Hollywood makes it into his detective novels. The only one to dwell on the movie trade is The Little Sister, and even then, it takes twelve chapters until the reader learns the plot is somehow connected to Hollywood. Yet, The Little Sister is often nominated as one of the greatest Hollywood novels ever made.

By the time The Little Sister was published in 1949, Chandler had built a name in Hollywood as a successful screenwriter. His Oscar-nominated script for the landmark Double Indemnity (co-written with director Billy Wilder) was lauded as both an honest adaptation of James M. Cain’s bestseller and, incredibly, an improvement on the source material, which had been declared a modern classic soon after publication. Chandler was also called in to rewrite dialogue on other films, as his brisk, wisecracking style was in high demand.

Compare Chandler’s entry to Hollywood to Nathanael West’s, who churned out unremarkable scripts while writing The Day of the Locust. West did not travel to Los Angeles with stars in his eyes, nor did he arrive with impressive credentials. He strove to become a serious novelist, not a screenwriter of cheap Westerns and jungle adventures. It was the Great Depression, though, and he heard that Hollywood paid good money for writing.

He heard more than that, actually. According to Marion Meade’s Lonelyhearts, it was West’s brother-in-law—New Yorker writer S. J. Perelman—and his frothing disgust with Hollywood (“where holding a job was ‘a series of hysterical genuflexions and convulsive ass-kissings'”) that lured West to Los Angeles in search of foul-mouthed grotesqueries and high-glamour oddities he could transfer to the page. It’s not difficult to imagine Nathanael West as a character in a Raymond Chandler mystery…if only there was a blackmail angle.

As Chandler tiptoed through Hollywood’s land mines and manure fields, writing screenplays, dialogue, and movie treatments, he discovered he was not revolted or disgusted with what he saw. He was bored.

“An industry with such vast resources and such magic techniques should not become dull so soon,” he wrote in The Atlantic in 1945. “Hollywood is a showman’s paradise. But showmen make nothing; they exploit what someone else has made.”

One fascinating vein running through my list of great Hollywood novels is how often the authors were involved in the business—not only were they witnesses, they were collaborators in the insanity they documented.

“Hollywood is easy to hate,” Chandler wrote in The Atlantic, “easy to sneer at, easy to lampoon. Some of the best lampooning has been done by people who have never been through a studio gate.” By the time he wrote The Little Sister, though, he’d been through the studio gate many times.

Like Ross MacDonald, Chandler realized early on he could leverage the American hard-boiled detective novel to write about America grappling with modernity, a country suddenly flush with money and influence. The detective novel is told from the perspective of an outsider with a keen grasp of social, political, and economic realities. Chandler went heavy on the grotesque when he depicted Los Angeles, populating his novels with fortune tellers for the rich, perfumed gigolos, mob toughs talking like they had been borrowed from Hemingway’s “The Killers,” and so forth.

Chandler reels it in for The Little Sister. The novel is a bit drier than his earlier work. Most Hollywood novels brim with a fatalistic cynicism, but Chandler incorporated a more literal, perhaps even-handed, depiction of Tinseltown.

James Garner as Philip Marlowe
James Garner portrayed Chandler’s detective in Marlowe, a poorly-received 1969 adaptation of The Little Sister.

This literal-mindedness is what prevents The Little Sister from falling into a trope of American writing, the moralizing take-down of Hollywood as a depraved and greedy trade. Re-reading the novel for this post, I noted Chandler had included some basic scenes missing from the others in this list. His detective, Philip Marlowe, visits a sound stage during filming, where he witnesses a catty back-and-forth between the actors after the scene is flubbed. Afterwards, he drops in on a rising starlet in her dressing room. Another chapter is devoted to dealing with a big-shot movie agent eager to protect his client. These business-like scenes are the building blocks of the second half of The Little Sister.

In 1944, Chandler wrote to Atlantic editor Charles Morton:

Hollywood is the only industry in the world that pays its workers the kind of money only capitalists and big executives make in other industries. … Its pictures cost too much and therefore must be safe and bring in big returns; but why do they cost too much? Because it pays the people who do the work, not the people who cut coupons.

Marlowe sinks into this moneyed and territorial industry as ably as he deals with alcoholic flophouse managers and gangsters who dabble with ice-picks to the neck. Marlowe is surefooted no matter the situation. He is a man of all people, but party to none. This is the character type Chandler honed to a point. It was a character he used time and again to turn over rocks across Southern California to reveal the grubby crustaceans and sun-bleached bones beneath.

On the right the great fat solid Pacific trudging into shore like a scrubwoman going home. No moon, no fuss, hardly a sound of the surf. No smell. None of the harsh wild smell of the sea. A California ocean. California, the department-store state. The most of everything and the best of nothing. Here we go again. You’re not human tonight, Marlowe.

The Little Sister, ch. 13

The one notable grotesque in The Little Sister is the near-real-time transformation of a Midwestern bookish, prudish young woman into a walking caricature of a star-struck pursuer of Tinseltown sophistication. Like the climax of Locust, a critical point is reached, something snaps, and Hollywood’s vapory facade mists away to something more earthy and damning.

Chandler allows a sliver of redemptive light to shine through the smoke-filled backrooms, and it lands on the unlikeliest of characters. (“Lots of nice people work in pictures,” Marlowe notes unironically at one point.) Chandler was far more the softie than his books’ hard-boiled reputation suggests. The Little Sister ends in a surprising place: Perhaps the problem is not with Hollywood, but with those too eager to believe its illusions.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? – The greatest Hollywood novel of all time?

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? by Horace McCoy

Previously: What Makes Sammy Run?

Here’s where I cheat a little on my rules for determining the greatest Hollywood novel of all time. Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is marginally a Hollywood novel, in that almost every central character came to Los Angeles to enter the film industry. All are unsuccessful at it—or, more accurately, they’re still waiting for success to saunter their way. Desperate and in the throes of the Great Depression, they turn to dance marathons as a way to make money until the next studio cattle call.

The novel’s narrator is Robert Syverten, a young man who has come to Hollywood to become a director. Down and out, he meets Gloria Beatty after both fail to pick up work as film extras. Gloria tells him, in a line that resonates with the emotional power of the entire novel, “If I’m not a better actress than most of those dames I’ll eat your hat—Let’s go sit and hate a bunch of people…”

Robert remarks:

Unless you are registered by Central Castings Bureau you didn’t have much of a chance. The big studios call up Central and say they want four Swedes or six Greeks or two Bohemian peasant types or six Grand Duchesses and Central takes care of it. I could see why Gloria didn’t get registered by Central. She was too blonde and too small and looked too old.

Robert and Gloria are from the middle of the country, and the reader immediately senses they have no chance of making it in Hollywood. They are more in line with Nathanael West’s people “who came to California to die” than the in-crowd Sammy Glick and Al Manheim run around with in What Makes Sammy Run?

The pair (it’s not really true they are a “couple”) agree to enter a dance marathon. “Free food and free bed as long as you last and a thousand dollars if you win,” Gloria explains. “A lot of producers and directors go to those marathon dances. There’s always the chance they might pick you out and give you a part in a picture.”

Dance marathon contestants, April 20, 1923.

The dance marathon organizers run the contestants ragged twenty-four hours for weeks—weeks—on end. The contestants must keep moving day and night and are only allowed ten-minute breaks every two hours. They learn to eat while shaving, eat while using the toilet, and reading the newspaper while slow-dancing. Good dancers get local sponsors who supply them with free clothes, extra food, even new dance shoes. Entrants fall out of the contest due to sheer exhaustion, collapsing on the dance floor and carried off like an anonymous corpse. Some contestants are professionals who travel the country to enter dance marathons. Most are unemployed, down-on-their-luck young people who enter for the food, the cot, the music, and the company.

The novel’s grueling depiction of the entrants’ taxing tortures while fox-trotting and jitterbugging throughout an upbeat dance marathon is a model of Hollywood-in-miniature: The artifice of the organizers demanding smiles, coiffed hair, and freshened make-up for the audience, while the entrants suffer from exhaustion and dehydration, both underpaid and underfed. Even the gabby, overly-familiar emcee who attempts to bring sparkle to the competition’s grueling realities is familiar to any viewer of game shows. To drive up interest, the organizers stage a dance wedding for the audience, although the competing couple have no matrimonial intentions—echoes of today’s reality TV, which is not as real as we’re led to believe.

The novel is spare and earthy, and the language is sparse and brisk. McCoy was often compared to James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity), a comparison McCoy detested. The book is interrupted throughout by the disembodied voice of a judge rendering sentencing, an effective way to open a novel (if somewhat Hollywoodish), but a device that grows into a gimmick as the novel proceeds. Fortunately these flashes are only brief reminders, like a voice from the sky, rather than dwelled upon.

The novel’s conclusion comes crashing down in a matter of a few pages. I’m not sure I buy the narrator’s final decision, but Robert’s and Gloria’s bleak despair is palpable. Gloria’s nihilism is so pure and unyielding, it’s a miracle McCoy can maintain our interest in her for the length of the book. Robert’s naivete is almost as strong, sometimes veering into hayseed territory. Economics, greed, and detachment have left these young people clinging to a life raft leaking air, and they barely realize they’re sinking.

As mentioned, Hollywood’s presence in They Shoot Horses is slim, more like a faint church bell chime in the distance reminding the reader of the glamour and wealth not far from the seaside dance hall the marathon takes place in. McCoy’s classic is a Hollywood novel because of Tinseltown’s absence, not presence, in the story—a character everyone is talking about but is never seen by the reader.

Next: The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler

What Makes Sammy Run? – The greatest Hollywood novel of all time?

What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg

Previously: The Day of the Locust

Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? may not be as fatalistic or absurd as The Day of the Locust, but it’s ten times as incendiary in its depiction of the movie industry—or, perhaps, of the types of personalities it attracts.

The book is an all-American rags-to-riches Hollywood novel, with its Horatio Alger character climbing the Tinseltown ladder one backstab at a time. Like Yossarian and Holden Caulfield, the titular Sammy Glick’s name became synonymous with a particular American phenotype. In 1940s lingo, Glick was a rat, a world-class heel—today, we would call him an asshole. Sammy is relentless—he’s always sniffing out the inside track, and he will steamroll over anyone in his way up. Insults bounce off him like bullets off Superman’s chest. Sammy sets the pace. Sammy takes care of Number One. Sammy runs, and with each rung of the ladder he ascends, his footwear improves.

The novel is narrated by Al Manheim, a New York drama critic who moves to Hollywood to make a go at writing scripts for the silver screen. Manheim is an all-American personality himself. A hard drinker who can crack wise with the best of them, Mainheim thinks he’s smarter than the average bear, and from the outset he’s convinced only he sees through Sammy’s brown-nosing and incessant self-promotion. For every Sammy in America, there’s ten Manheims.

Disenchantment aside, Manheim is subliminally servile to Sammy Glick, a youngster who demonstrates unending hustle. Manheim detests Sammy’s very presence, yet goes out of his way to attend his birthday party at The Algonquin—only for Sammy to use Manheim as a stepping stone to ingratiate himself with a big-shot playwright. Manheim seeks out Sammy as soon as he’s arrived in Los Angeles, and accepts all the spec work Sammy throws his way. (One has the sense Manheim unconsciously trailed Sammy to Hollywood.) Again and again, Manheim winds up in Sammy’s company (or debt), and Manheim can always gin up excuses for how it came to be.

Budd Schulberg
Budd Schulberg

A narrator less invested in Sammy would not sustain a novel’s length without some stock contrivance, such as a biographer or journalist dispatched to recount Sammy’s rise in Hollywood. A narrator more invested in Sammy would be too toady to sustain a reader’s interest. (Besides, Sammy would toss aside a sycophant as soon as his utility was exhausted.) In Manheim—an overlooked talent and depressed alcoholic—Schulberg crafted a character who sees through Sammy yet is drawn to him as a polestar. What Makes Sammy Run? is sometimes derided as a lesser, Hollywoodized Gatsby, but I view them as different beasts. Manheim is a present and active narrator, nowhere near as invisible as Nick Carraway. What Makes Sammy Run? also doesn’t carry Gatsby‘s odor of Greek tragedy about it. There’s a shrug of the shoulders when it comes to Sammy Glick, a sense Schulberg is saying, This is the way the world works, folks.

In Sammy Glick, Schulberg introduced a character never before seen in American literature, and yet within a few paragraphs of Sammy’s introduction, he’s instantly recognizable to any reader then or now. Literature referred to as “psychologically realistic” is often considered quiet and thoughtful. What Makes Sammy Run? is boisterous, breezy, and infuriating, yet the psychology of Sammy Glick seems as vivid and credible as any “serious” character. Sammy Glick is one of the the most arresting depictions I’ve ever encountered. That spark of recognition is part of what makes him so realistic.

The realism doesn’t come from a thorough plumbing of Sammy’s interior psyche. It’s the exact opposite: Manheim is left guessing what makes Sammy tick (or run). The novel toys with the reader’s humanism, the quality of feeling there must be something more to Sammy. Schulberg’s suggestion: Maybe there’s not. There is some teasing out of Sammy’s background to humanize him, but the details don’t add up to the final result the way that two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen combine to produce water.

Sammy is an exploitative social chameleon, but it’s just as revealing what others think they’re getting from him in return. In a less materialistic, less image-oriented culture, Sammy would be treading water at best. He ascends the Hollywood ladder because those around him keep offering him a boost. Like all great Hollywood novels, the industry is a stand-in for America’s “success-driven culture,” as Schulberg put it.

Published in 1941, in an age of hard-boiled writers whose bread-and-butter were loners like Manheim, in a time when authors like Fitzgerald and John Dos Passos were recording the failures of America for posterity, they all managed to overlook the ladder-climbers, the ass-kissers, the backstabbers—Schulberg got Sammy Glick down on paper first, and that alone is remarkable.

Schulberg noted Sammy represented “a way of life that was paying dividends in the first half of the twentieth century. … It will survive as long as money and prestige and power are ends in themselves, running wild, unharnessed from usefulness.” By every metric I can locate, this way of life is still paying dividends in the first half of the twenty-first century.

A common saw in storytelling is that comedies end with a wedding and tragedies end with a funeral. Without spoiling the book, What Makes Sammy Run? is a comedy. The ending won’t make you laugh, though.

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Movie poster for the Schulberg-penned On The Waterfront. In the film, Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) testifies against mob influence over the dockworkers union. The episode is often compared to Schulberg’s congressional testimony against the Hollywood Ten and others.

What Makes Sammy Run? has been criticized as anti-Semitic and anti-industry. I can’t speak to the former, but as to the latter, it seems self-evident Schulberg wasn’t interested in buffing up Tinseltown’s less-than-stellar reputation. Unlike every other book on my list of greatest Hollywood novels ever, What Makes Sammy Run? has never been adapted to a motion picture. Before his death in 2009, Schulberg quoted Steven Spielberg as telling him the book was “anti-Hollywood and should never be filmed.”

Schulberg’s father was a movie mogul himself, a Paramount Pictures executive and the second half of a now-forgotten studio he founded with Louis B. Mayer. He once boasted to Mayer his son was “the only novelist who ever came from Hollywood.” Yet he moaned the book’s publication slammed the door on his son’s nascent screenwriting career.

Not exactly—Schulberg later wrote several screenplays of note, including On The Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd. Schulberg was a Communist Party stalwart until the party pressured him to make What Makes Sammy Run? more proletarian. His friendly, name-naming testimony to the House Committee on Un-American Activities did not endear him in certain Hollywood circles. (The Los Angeles Times has one version of the story; the Fourth International sees things a bit differently.)

Born a Tinseltown blue blood, a child who grew up with movie stars at his birthday parties and running around studio backlots while epics like Ben Hur were being filmed, Schulberg has an intricate and complicated history with Hollywood. Reading his obituary, he seems to have met (or tangled with) just about every big name in Hollywood’s Golden Age. If no one will film What Makes Sammy Run? perhaps someone can produce a biopic of Schulberg’s remarkable, if controversial, life.

Next: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy

The Day of the Locust – The greatest Hollywood novel of all time?

The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

Previously: Introduction

When I ask other writers to name the greatest Hollywood novel of all time, the more well-informed usually reply The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West.

The Day of the Locust‘s reputation as greatest of all time is earned. The opening chapter may be the finest three pages ever written on the contradictions of Southern California. With disgust (and a little glee) West holds up for display Hollywood’s winners as well as the legions of desperate outsiders shut out of Hollywood’s dream factory—those “who came to California to die.” There is plenty of foreshadowing of the novel’s conclusion, yet when the finale arrives it still surprises and shocks without coming off as a twist ending. In between the first and last chapters is not so much a novel about Hollywood, but a novel about those standing on their tiptoes looking over the fence to steal a peek of Hollywood.

West was a New Yorker transplanted to Los Angeles, and his alien status is confirmed on every page. Los Angeles architecture is almost always described in quotes. A house is “Spanish” or “New England” or “Moorish.” Hollywood debauchery is not so much of the Playboy Mansion variety, or even Roman bacchanalia, it’s just cheap and pathetic. The airing of a French farce in a Sunset Boulevard cathouse may be the least erotic description of porn on record. Simulacrums of decadence are mistaken for actual decadence, such as a horse hooves-up at the bottom of a swimming pool. (No fear, it’s a rubber prop.) California’s artifice, inauthenticity, and halfhearted stabs at opulence are the brick-and-mortar of Locust‘s plot. The first chapter ends noting “Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous,” which may as well be the novel’s thesis statement.

Scene after scene, West lays down an unsparing case damning Hollywood’s emptiness the way a district attorney builds a point-by-point case for the death penalty—but where is the Lot character who escapes the city’s inevitable downfall? West’s ship of fools are uniformly impotent and ineffective. As with West’s other gem, Miss Lonelyhearts, there is little to root for here.

Nathanael West
Nathanael West

W. H. Auden identified “West’s Disease” as “a disease of consciousness which renders it incapable of converting wishes into desires.” In Auden’s formulation, wishes are whimsical and ethereal (“I wish I was a movie star”). Actual desire motivates the individual into action: “I’m going to enroll in acting classes and practice three hours a day.”

Hollywood’s success as a dream factory is predicated on knowing our wishes and actualizing them on the silver screen. That’s why Hollywood appears a tantalizing cure for West’s Disease. Its siren song drew the characters to California from the humdrum Midwest and the frosty East Coast. Even if West’s misfits could muster up the energy and exert the effort to make it big, Hollywood’s antibodies would swarm to keep these ineffectuals a far distance from the beautiful, powerful, and well-connected. Besides, Hollywood only creates desires, it never actually fulfills them. There’s more than a few reasons West’s original title was The Cheated.

The Day of the Locust movie poster
The Day of the Locust‘s Hollywood adaptation’s garish movie poster

This inability to generate true desire makes the characters of Locust torpid and submissive. It’s why the book’s finale is so shocking: The characters finally shake off their doldrums, convert whimsical wishes to primal desires—and they act on them. The energy of the final chapter is all the more pronounced when compared to the impotence of the preceding chapters.

(The movie adaptation of Locust has been called a horror film in disguise. West’s grotesque, helpless characters, each a mere audience to their own slide into destruction, and the suppressed violence released orgasmically in the finale, lines up with many horror film tropes.)

Much of The Day of the Locust is based on Nathanael West’s experiences in Los Angeles churning out film noir and adventure screenplays for Republic Productions (known as “Repulsive Productions” among Hollywood insiders; biographer Marion Meade refers to the studio as “Cheapsville.”) His produced scripts were marginally successful. His novels fared considerably less well, at least, in his lifetime.

West’s fortune seemed to be turning around right before he and his new bride were killed in an auto accident. West wasn’t exactly martyrized, but his writer associates did see to it to spread word of his genius, including Budd Schulberg, who declared The Day of the Locust captured how “the orgiastic crowd, loving you this moment, destroying you the next, is the very essence of Hollywood—as Hollywood may be the essence of our success-driven culture.”

Next: What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg

What’s the greatest Hollywood novel of all time?

Hollywood sign
Photo by Thomas Wolf (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Let’s lay down the ground rules. A Hollywood novel is

  1. a book-length single work of fiction,
  2. regards the American film or TV industry, and
  3. is set in or around Los Angeles, California.

The Hollywood novel should not be confused with the Los Angeles novel, which may be set in similar locations but is not primarily concerned with the film industry. This includes almost all of John Fante’s work (Ask the Dust).

Also eliminated are autobiographies like Robert Towne’s The Kid Stays in the Picture and Julia Phillips’ You’ll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again, both entirely about the Hollywood film industry and both reportedly nonfiction.

And, sadly, my first rule eliminates Fitzgerald’s superb The Pat Hobby Stories as it’s a story collection, not a novel. (Otherwise, these are some of the finest, and funniest, stories ever produced about Hollywood.)

Wikipedia offers a rather lengthy list of Hollywood novels. Obviously I’ve not read them all, and so the list that follows is not the hands-down decision on the Greatest of All Time, but is a healthy representation of the form.

The list (links added as entries are published):

Gary Gygax’s Appendix N

A Hindu Rakshasa re-imagined in D&D’s Monster Manual

When I was a teen and enamored with Dungeons & Dragons, one treasure I discovered poring over the rules books was Appendix N of the Dungeon Masters Guide. D&D co-creator Gary Gygax lists nearly thirty pulp and genre writers as major influences on the development of the game. “Upon such a base I built my interest in fantasy,” Gygax wrote, “being an avid reader of all science fiction and fantasy literature since 1950.”

In the early 1970s, Gygax and Dave Arneson harvested genre and pulp fiction to invent a new game, one that felt oddly familiar yet unlike any other experience. If “a book is a pocket or portable dreamweaver,” then Gygax and Arneson systematized that dream with charts and rules and catalogs. They took the dream off the paperback page and put it on the tabletop where it can be shared and shaped by a group of people.

If you’re familiar with D&D, most of the authors listed in Gygax’s Appendix N are unsurprising: R. E. Howard (creator of Conan), H. P. Lovecraft, Fritz Leiber (whom I’ve written about before), Michael Moorcock, J. R. R. Tolkien. Some names do surprise though, such as Leigh Brackett, whose screenwriting credits include the film noir The Big Sleep and John Wayne’s Rio Bravo. (Gygax probably included her for her planetary romances set on Mars, however.) Others would have faded into obscurity if not for Gygax’s list.

I don’t recall Appendix N being discussed much by D&D players back in the day. Decades later, the D&D blog Grognardia revealed to me that Appendix N has taken on a life of its own within the community. Gygax’s list has been studied, dissected, and emulated. There’s even an Appendix N Book Club. Blogger James Maliszewski called Appendix N the “literary DNA” of D&D.

And while Appendix N names only 20th-century authors, skimming the various rule books reveals D&D’s literary DNA also includes (in no particular order):

  • Scandinavian, Teutonic, and Anglo-Saxon mythology
  • Catholic demonology
  • Biblical imagery
  • Chivalric codes and Japanese bushido
  • Fairy tales, the Brothers Grimm
  • Jewish Kabbalah
  • Greek mythology
  • Persian, Arabic, and Islamic folklore
  • Ancient mythology of Mesopotamia (Tiamat, the iconic five-headed dragon of D&D, derives from Babylonian religion)
  • Hindu legends
  • Arthurian tales (“Matter of Britain”)
  • Western European legend, from Charlemagne to the Renaissance (“Matter of France”)
  • Celtic and Irish folklore
  • Slavic folklore
  • Haitian folklore (although D&D’s zombies are more like 1968’s Night of the Living Dead)
  • Ancient Egypt (although D&D’s mummies owe more to 1932’s The Mummy with Boris Karloff)
  • Western classic literature (Frankenstein, Paradise Lost, Canterbury Tales, and more)
  • 20th-century genres beyond those listed in Appendix N (horror and science-fiction as well as fantasy, in print and film)

This list is incomplete, but already its breadth is wild. How could a game culled from this haggis hang together in a coherent fashion, let alone grow into a cultural phenomenon played and studied fifty years later? D&D’s pulp fantasy roots help, but some credit must be chalked up to its origins in the gonzo anything-goes 1970s. Another reason is that D&D, like the written word, takes place in the mind rather than on a screen, and so inconsistencies can be papered over by the imagination and a willing suspension of disbelief.

D&D is a cultural mutt, perhaps the ultimate postmodernist pastiche. (As Jeff Rients put it: “You play Conan, I play Gandalf. We team up to fight Dracula.”) As with other collaborative games such as Exquisite Corpse, a session of D&D is never truly finished or closed. The difference is, D&D’s rules and system are open-ended. The game organizer is free to mix-and-match their own inspirations—Gygax and Arneson baked a kind of implied amendment system into their Constitution. “From such sources, as well as any other imaginative writing or screenplay you will be able to pluck kernels from which to grow the fruits of exciting campaigns,” Gygax wrote in Appendix N.

Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon crash-land in the D&D world and need the players’ help? That’ll work. A zombie apocalypse sweeping across a country village? That’ll work. Modern superheroes transported to the age of D&D? That’ll work. Referees can add their own pulpy sources and influences and, somehow, it still holds together.

There were complaints that this melange was ahistorical, especially from players who’d got it in their head D&D was to be a simulation of some sort. At its most basic, the game felt like swords and magic in Ye Olde Merrie England or thereabouts. So why do players fight Jewish golems and Egyptian mummies? Concerted efforts were made to correct Gygax’s “mistakes” and produce more historically-accurate role-playing games, such as Chivalry & Sorcery and Fantasy Wargaming. Those titles drifted into obscurity while D&D’s popularity intensified. Gygax’s and Arneson’s reception to inspiration from all sources—their “lightning rod”—was a feature, not a bug.

Not only does Appendix N indicate how widely-read Gygax and Arneson were, it also suggests how widely-read they expected the players to be. D&D wasn’t merely made by smart people, it was made for smart people.

Gygax could have used Appendix N to recommend movies, TV shows, or comic books, but chose not to. “I would never add other media forms to a reading list,” Gygax wrote in 2007, a year before his death. “If someone is interested in comic books and/or graphic novels, they’re on their own.” For me, this quote seals just how highly Gygax regarded the written word.

This post was adapted for Internet Archive’s blog: “The Fantasy Books that Inspired Dungeons & Dragons”